IBMA Bluegrass Rambles
Downtown Raleigh
Tuesday, September 29 & Wednesday, September 30, 2015

From the moment I walked into the Raleigh Convention Center to pick up my IBMA credentials on Tuesday afternoon, it’s been hard to escape the banjo rolls and fiddle licks that’ve been thick in the downtown Raleigh air. Just two days in and my phone was autocorrecting “flat” to “Flatt,” even when I mean the former. Not that I’m complaining: Despite valid concerns lodged by fellow INDY writers in this week’s paper regarding a rather stale selection of acts at this year’s festival, I’ve already heard plenty of new and familiar acts that’ve caused my ears to perk up.

Maybe it’s just due to my tendency to seek out the non-traditionalists of the bills, but thus far, the Rambles have seemed to have plenty of pleasant inconsistencies to keep me intrigued. At times, IBMA has the appearances of a proper bluegrass fest: While playing the Marriott’s jam-packed California Bluegrass Association suite on Wednesday night, Frank Solivan & Dirty Kitchen introduced a song written by Solivan’s cousin, Megan McCormick, who he boasted plays with Jenny Lewis of Rilo Kiley fame. His observation went unacknowledged by the room—Is she one of those indie rockers?” the silence seemed to say. Shortly after, though, the multi-IBMA winners chased Jimmy Martin’s “Sophronie” with an extended—and fairly faithful—take on Roy Orbison’s “Oh, Pretty Woman” that gave the quartet an excuse to rip into some solos that showed why it was awarded Instrumental Group of the Year in 2014.

Across the street in the convention center, Bradford Lee Folk & The Bluegrass Playboys launched into Dawes’ “A Little Bit of Everything” only after asking the crowd if they liked Bill Monroe, Flatt & Scruggs and the rootsy California outfit whose song they were about to cover. While I was not one of those who cheered when Folk inquired about Dawes, he and his band turned in another compelling set of timeless, literate folk tunes voiced by Folk’s trademark high lonesome wisp and his smirking sense of humor. Despite significant overlap in material between sets, I also caught Folk Tuesday night in the CBA suite, where I first discovered him during IBMA’s inaugural year in Raleigh. Together, they proved that not only that is Bradford Lee Folk & The Bluegrass Playboys among the best acts at IBMA once again this year, but also that the CBA suite is indeed the best place to see live music at IBMA, never mind the acoustics.

On top of hospitality that rivals the proudest Southerner, the CBA suite’s unplugged performances lend more intimacy than anywhere other than a hotel hallway, but with the benefit of a nearly non-stop parade of highly regarded acts. Flatt Lonesome followed Folk on Tuesday night with its harmony-heavy mix of modern bluegrass ballads and barn-burners; after being relegated to the hallway for most of last year’s late-night set from the 2014 Emerging Artist of the Year, I knew to arrive early.

Sandwiched between the traditional proficiency of Special Consensus and Sideline, San Francisco quintet Front Country—who seem to be one of the busiest bands in Raleigh this week—were Wednesday night’s highlight. The soulful, passionate singing of dynamo Melody Walker seemed to vibrate the walls; the ensemble delivered an intoxicating Americana blend with crafty arrangements and rock gusto. At the end of the 30 minute-performance, the audience gave a rare and spontaneous standing ovation, genuinely earned.

Following Front Country with the fiery fiddlin’ of Michael Cleveland over at the Lincoln Theatre seemed like a fine idea—and indeed, Cleveland & Flamekeeper did not disappoint. But the mostly empty room mostly made me miss the close-quarter comforts of the CBA.

So I left.